North Carolina

UNC's Dean Smith awarded Medal of Freedom

Posted November 19, 2013
Updated November 20, 2013

Former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill head basketball coach Dean Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday during a ceremony at the White House. 

President Barack Obama noted Smith's important contributions to the game of basketball in Wednesday's ceremony, but he also pointed to Smith's efforts to integrate college basketball and a restaurant in Chapel Hill. 

"Even as he won 78 percent of his games, he graduated 96 percent of his players," Obama said. "He is the first coach to use multiple defenses in a game. He was the pioneer who popularized the idea of pointing to a passer. After a basket, players should point to the teammate who passed them the ball." Gravley: Smith honored with Medal of Freedom Gravley: Smith honored with Medal of Freedom

Smith was not in attendance Wednesday due to his health. His wife, Dr. Linnea Smith, long-time coaching assistant Bill Guthridge and current UNC head coach Roy Williams accepted the award on his behalf. 

"While Coach Smith couldn't join us today due to an illness he is facing with extraordinary courage, we also honor his courage in helping to change our country," Obama said. "He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped integrate a restaurant and neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That's the kind of character he represented on and off the court."

"This is an extraordinary honor," Smith’s family said in a statement. "We were touched by those who asked for the recognition and by the President’s decision to give an award to Dean for his work both on and off the court."

Smith retired in 1997 as the all-time winningest coach in men’s college basketball history with 879 victories – all of them with UNC. He currently sits fourth on that list having been passed by Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Bobby Knight.

"I’m so proud of Coach Smith, happy for his family and friends and appreciative to President Obama for this just recognition," said current UNC head coach Roy Williams.

The Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor in the nation and, according to the White House, is given to individuals "who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

Smith won 13 ACC championships and two national championships with the Tar Heels and guided Team USA to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1976.

Smith taught beyond the court

Over the years, the Hall of Famer has been heralded just as much for his work off of the basketball court as on.

Smith was a key figure in advocating for civil rights and recruited the first African-American scholarship athlete, Charlie Scott, in UNC’s history.

UNC gave Smith the inaugural Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement for his contributions in "teaching beyond the classroom." He has been named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, awarded two honorary doctorates and been presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.

In 2010, Smith’s family revealed that he is suffering from a neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.

Obama awarded 16 people with the honor on Wednesday, including Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.

Other notables included former President Bill Clinton, country music singer Loretta Lynn, astronaut Sally Ride and TV personality Oprah Winfrey.


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  • Celt Nov 19, 2013

    Congratulations to Coach Dean Smith for being awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom tomorrow. You are a man of integrity and vision. All of sport is the poorer because you no longer walk the sideline of Carolina basketball. We of Duke salute you.

  • Lost and Loaded Nov 20, 2013

    Regardless of your rivalry opinions about Dean Smith, no one can deny the positive impact he made on college sports when he recruited and played black athletes like Charlie Scott at a time when Smithfield, NC still displayed a prominent KKK recruiting billboard at the entrance to town.

  • BeastieBoy Nov 20, 2013

    Freedom? National security? WTph?

  • StunGunn Nov 20, 2013

    This honor is well deserved, but bittersweet with Coach's health so poor. I'm glad Roy and Gut will be there as well as Dean's wife to accept the award.

    Thanks to Celt and scousler for your thoughtful posts. This is one of those times where there are no rivals.

  • Old Well Drinks Nov 20, 2013

    Congrats to the living legend, sincerely, you made the rep at UNC happen, again, the good positive ethical rep!

    Your protege, ole' Roy, should thank you daily, every day he gets out of bed and walks into his cush job, and he should also realize that there's a right way & a wrong way to run a program from the start.


  • jcd241959 Nov 20, 2013

    Dean stood tall when people were treated wrong. Now everybody is treated wrong, who will stand tall?

  • 75Tarheel Nov 20, 2013

    View quoted thread

    Read the whole article if you're able. And then make an intelligent comment if you're able. You obviously have no clue what Coach Smith meant to so many people that had nothing to do with basketball. It's his sense of fair play and equality amoung all men that makes him so much of a living legend. AND so deserving of this great honor.

    Thanks Coach Smith for all you've meant to UNC Tarheels everywhere and to those who've never seen a game of basketball!

  • kdnole Nov 20, 2013

    Congrats to Dean and UNC!!

  • sburks1906 Nov 20, 2013

    Congrats to Coach Smith. Well earned...

  • mike honcho Nov 20, 2013

    From this Duke fan, congrats to coach Smith, a well deserved honor.




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